Seeing Languages Differently


How we see the world impacts our use of language and our use of language impacts how we see the world. Cognitive scientists in the vein of Benjamin Whorf regularly investigate the connections to thought and language use, including how visual perception varies across languages. Since I use (authentic) visual media to assist in foreign language acquisition, my research does have a practical side to the normally impenetrable fields of visual cognition and psycholinguistics. I use photographs at the earliest stages of language learning to train the brain not only in the use of new words, but literally how to "see" in the new language. Seeing a language differently embeds that language into a visual cultural context for the learner and makes for more effective recall later.

Let's look at two aspects of the visual world that provide good examples of how the visual impacts language and vary between languages and cultures: Color & Space.


In order to highlight how color perceptions vary among cultures, I like to use the example of how we linguistically categorize certain colors. Let's take the range of colors in what we call "blue" and "red" in English.

When you look at the following colors, typical native English speaking respondents will describe these two colors as existing with the range of colors we call "blue".

Conversely, the following two colors here represent two distinct color categories in English, namely "red" and "pink"

If one looks at other languages, this same categorization scheme is not evident. For example, the blues above are distinct color categories in Russian. Plain or dark blue (синий, siniy) is a distinct color from light blue (голубой, goluboy). Each of these color categories has its own associated meanings, invoking a specific thought for many Russians. In Moscow, there are separate blue lines on the city metro system which helped me finally learn the difference between синий & голубой . Winawer and other at MIT take a close look at this subject in "Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination." (2007)
For the red & pink example, there is a correlating opposite in Chinese. The color distinction is not as prevalent as the colors are in the same category linguistically. Red is 红 (hóng) and pink as 粉红, (fÄ›n hóng) or literally "powder red", a linguistic derivation similar to 'light-blue' in English. Where Russian blues are distinct, so are the Reds in English, but in Chinese, they are linguistically related.

The Winawer study takes this a step further. What does it mean for the function of our brain when we categorize what we see in different ways? They show that Russian concepts of blue affect visual performance, particularly on the language users' ability to discriminate between colors.

They state
" … our results suggest that language-specific distortions in perceptual performance arise as a function of the interaction of lower level perceptual processing and higher level knowledge systems (e.g. language)."

This insight/observation points towards a direct connection between the language one speaks and the functionality of the visual cortex and the brain. In other words, the vocabulary you use and how you categorize the world affects the speed at which you brain can recall certain information through your optic nerves. They also hint that left brain hemisphere tasks may be affected by language and visual perception as this is the hemisphere of the brain where language and logical performance is organized. Interestingly enough, this is switched in infants as visual perception is not yet attached to a language center. Apparently, babies see color purely as what they see is not filtered through the lens of language. I am not sure what it means to see a color "purely", but the Color label wheel from Dolores Labs provides an interesting look at color perceptions within the English language.


In addition to color, spatial perception varies among cultures according to researchers. These differences in how we perceive space (eg. size, distance, depth, and direction, etc) lead to corresponding linguistic differences manifested in the words we use to describe our surroundings in different language. This lens of language here affects how we perceive and feel about our surroundings. One might easily imagine how a phrase like "that is a large house", "it is within walking distance", or "it is located off to the right" would vary in meaning between cultures, but there are more subtle and stark differences in how we perceive space differently.
The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has several examples of cultural variances. Researcher Steven C. Levinson has interesting insights and states that in
"…many cultures (as suggested by at least a third of the small sample) spatial conception is organized in a fundamentally different way than expected on the basis of familiar western languages."

According to Levinson, a linguistic example can be found in the lack of spatial descriptors as in front of, in back, left of, and right of. Some languages instead use absolute terms or "fixed" cardinal direction such as north, south, upstream, downstream that are irrelevant of the direction of the speaker.

Perhaps it is that certain languages are less ego-centric, linguistically speaking, and focus more on cardinal directions. Apparently, the only universal content in regards to spatial perception in language appears to be the direction 'up' since it is a function of the gravity that we all feel, regardless of our cultural or linguistic background.

Geography, culture, and even technology shape how we view space in our world. In addition to variance among cultures, there is constant change within languages. Additionally, it is not solely a function of this 'lens of language'; it is both a function of our language and our experiences. For example, the exposure to mathematics and science has an impact on how we perceive space.

The following figures represent some classic optical illusions to demonstrate examples of how cultures perceive length differently. In the first image, the question is "which center line is longer?


In the second image, the question is whether the blue line is longer than the red.


In both cases, the lines are the same length, we only perceive them to be different lengths; an optical illusion. Interestingly enough, these optical illusions are only perceptible by members of traditional 'western cultures'. Segall, et al. in "The Influence of Culture on Visual Perception " wrote in 1968 that susceptibility to optical illusion is, indeed, a culturally determined factor. Their experiments conclude that the "European and American samples made significantly more illusions-supported responses than did the non-Western samples."

I use these examples of visual differences between cultures to highlight the point that the visual impacts language, and if you use media to teach a language, you need to use authentic media. Clip art and generic stock photography don't take advantage of the benefits of media in learning. Many language learning software developers use inauthentic images, stock photos, or clip art simply because of cost issues. A full description of the design problems in language learning software can be found in my 2003 article: CALL, commercialism and culture: inherent software design conflicts and their results ReCALL, 2003 – Cambridge Univ Press. In the mean time, I will continue to ponder how what I see affects how I think and how I think in a given language affects how I see.